Adalina has changed for her visit to the Golden Hand Coalition in their hang-out at the Blaster and Limpet
bar. By this I mean she has laid aside her Punch non-lethal weapon which fires only rubber bullets and has strapped on the real thing – a Martini-Henry twelve-shooter.
"Play nicely with the other pirates," I say, disguising as well as I can the concern I feel. "And see that you get home by ten o'clock latest."
She plays along. "Sure thing, Pops, although I might get invited to a sleep-over. I'll let you know."
After she's gone I start reading Galnet News and looking at local bulletins from the station. First thing I notice is that Vesto Cipher is in the most-wanted list here on Diva Mines. That guy must be in and out of Odin's Crag detention centre so often they don't even bother to launder the bedding in his cell; and it's still warm from the last visit when they push him into it.
I start scrolling through Galnet News and my eyes settle on this piece.
Well, thank you very
much, Detective Larsen; you might have told the galaxy that I was released without charge.
I wonder how Adalina is getting on.
Adalina finds the Blaster and Limpet
in a quiet corner of the outpost where graffiti decorates the walls and the lighting is intermittent. The entrance to the bar is solid and uninviting. She bangs boldly on the door with the butt of her Martini-Henry.
A window slides back and the doorman stares blankly out.
There's a long pause, like he doesn't read very well or the list is very long.
"Okay, you're in."
It's busy inside. A few arguments are in progress that look like they'll spill over into a tussle quite soon. Adalina avoids them and finds an unoccupied table. The lighting is low and the tobacco smoke hangs in layers like stratus clouds.
A gaunt man approaches carrying a bottle and two glasses.
"I'm Splyne," he says. "Ain't seen you around."
"Schmid. Just got an invite today," Adalina says, adjusting her speech to the vernacular. "Lookin' to do some crime."
He pours two glasses of liquor and knocks one back straight off. Adalina sips hers and coughs violently. He laughs.
"Local brew – takes a bit of getting used to. Where you hail from?"
"Originally? Back in the bubble, a nowhere place called Biko," Adalina says convincingly; it's part of her hastily-prepared backstory. She hopes that Splyne doesn't know it.
"That's Delaine territory."
"That it is," she says with less confidence, "so I was raised on combat and conflict."
If Splyne notices the wavering in her voice, he doesn't show it.
"What are you flying now, Schmid? You look like an FDL kinda-gal."
"In a Python just now," she says, then sees mockery in his face, "...for the cargo space – bin runnin' narcotics and any other illicits I can find."
Splyne goes thoughtful.
"Wait here," he commands.
"Not like there's anywhere else to go."
The men around look hungrily at Adalina, but having seen her with Splyne they know better that to make a move.
Splyne returns, pours himself another drink, and looks Adalina in the eye.
"How would you like to become allied to the faction – real fast?"
Adalina wonders what Splyne has in mind, but she shows eagerness.
"What would I have to do?"
"One job, that's all. It'll show your worth and we'll know we can trust you."
"And the job?"
"No big deal, just transporting some people – clandestine."
"Sure, but why me?"
"Well, you've got the ship," Splyne explains. "Most people here have combat ships that struggle to carry so much as the biowaste from their own heads. Your Python'll do just fine."
"Okay, send me the details and I'll get onto it," Adalina says, relieved that her task is not of a more personal nature.
"No, you misunderstand. We're doing it right now – top priority."
Adalina remains calm despite knowing who they'll find aboard Border Reiver
"Okay, but I need to piss; that local brew has gone right through."
In the toilet Adalina quickly prepares and sends a message.
"Andy, get out – I've got company."
Splyne is waiting outside the toilet.
"Right, let's go."
"Andy, get out – I've got company."
I read the message and five seconds later I'm scrambling to shut down Galnet and gather what few belongings I have on the bridge. I disembark and just have time to dodge behind a strut in a shadowy corner of the hangar when Adalina appears with a man I don't recognise, but I would guess he's Golden Hand Coalition from his appearance – wiry and swaggering and with an alertness born out of suspicion.
Once they've boarded Border Reiver
I sneak out of the hangar before they launch. I've no idea where they're going and I'm more concerned about Adalina than ever. I think about my next move. The only lead I have is the Blaster and Limpet
so I head in that direction. On the way I stop off to buy a cap and some dark glasses – the best disguise I can muster. I'm careful to pay with cash, knowing about the APB that's out on me; any account-based transactions will find me in a nanosecond.
As I approach, I see the forbidding entrance and realise than I'm not going to be able to mingle with the faction. I veer left and look at the menu of the Diva Diner
which is opposite the bar.
"Where are we going, Splyne?" Adalina asks.
"Hey, call me Cubik," he says. "Time we got on first names. And to answer your question: Carcosa, Robardin Rock."
Adalina plots the route and launches from Diva Mines.
"I noticed two toothbrushes in the john just now. You travellin' with someone?"
Adalina's heart starts to pound. What else will he find if he really looks?
"Er, no, it's a friend's; she stays on board now and then; haven't seen her in...must be a month."
He let's that go, but doesn't stop the interrogation.
"Paint's new; no corrosion; no pits."
"It was overdue. I scorched it on a class O."
Adalina is just thinking she could be an actress – the pretence flows easily out of her mouth – when Splyne cuts to the chase.
"Seems to me you're trying a tad too hard to be a pirate – with your crazy hairstyle and all. What's your real story?"
If Plan A is 'pretend to be a hard-ass pirate', then Plan B is 'pretend to be a supplicating wannabe'.
"Okay, Cubik, okay, I didn't see all that much crime and even less violence on Biko. But I can have aspirations, can't I? It's a life I've always wanted to live. Let me prove myself by completing this mission."
Splyne takes this at face value; it would seem to fit the facts more closely.
"This is your one chance. Mess this up and you won't live long enough to tell anyone about it."
arrives at Robardin Rock which is an asteroid base only a handful of light-seconds from Carcosa.
After they dock and enter the hangar, Splyne calls a colleague who's based here.
"Hey Kline, are we good to go?"
"Hey, Cubik, sure; I'll bring them to you. Also, I got some hot silver if you're interested."
"Sure, the market's buoyant in DM right now."
The call ends and Adalina thinks it's fair to ask the question, "What's the 'them' that Kline spoke of? What's the cargo?"
"Slaves, of course. Check the Sysmap; they're bona fide exports from here."
Adalina wants to say: if they're bona fide exports then why the clandestine mission?
but she keeps quiet.
At length a truck arrives carrying two slave cages and half-a-dozen canisters of silver. In the first cage, the occupants are dirty, ragged, and look half-starved. The other cage couldn't be a bigger contrast. Its occupants look tired and stressed, sure, but they're well fed and well dressed.
One woman stands a head taller than the rest; she looks haughty despite her circumstances; she's in opulent robes made of contrasting fabrics incorporating threads of gold, platinum, and rhodium, each glittering with its own tints. Her outer garments are richly decorated with applied jewels and pearls. A fine linen ruff, trimmed with lace and shaped into crisp folds encircles her neck.
Cubik Splyne is fascinated by her – well by her dress at least.
"Enjoy them clothes while you can," he calls to her. "We'll soon have them off your back, and then you'll be on your back in the service of the faction."
She gives him a cold, hard stare and turns her back on him.
All this time Adalina has been looking at the captives. She realises that these are the tourists from Andy's missing Orcas. They've been hijacked and brought here.
"Listen, Cubik," she says. "While you're loading the cargo I want to see if I can source a heat dispersion plate. Seems to me we overheated more than usual dropping into Carcosa."
Splyne seems uninterested and nods to her.
Quickly she sets off to make a tour of the shipyards, remote workshops, and hangars in the base. Towards the back she comes across a shipyard where, standing in the forecourt are three Orcas all still wearing the Linton Travel livery. Each one now has a 3C beam laser and two multi-cannons slung beneath it and atop they are bristling with utilities. She can see manifest scanners, point defence, chaff launchers, heat sinks. Clearly they've been built for combat.
"A fine sight."
Adalina spins round to find that Splyne has followed her.
"One Orca on its own can't do much damage, but these three together, operating in a wing – or pod if you will – can be trouble for unsuspecting low-lifes."
"And these are your ships?" Adalina says regaining her composure after the surprise.
"They are now," he says. "We won't keep them long – just doing a job for a client."
"You ask a lot of questions, Schmid."
"Can't I be curious?"
"There you go again, but to answer your question we're out to damage this guy Linton who crossed our client. This is payback."
"I'm sure he deserves it," she says, carefully avoiding another question. "It's a neat idea: steal his ships, commit crimes using them, let him pay the price. I'm guessing it's a woman."
Splyne grins. "I agree it usually is, but so happens she's working for some big pirate lord out of Maia."
"That must be a mighty big hurt to come all this way for revenge."
"I didn't ask and I don't care, but I do know some feuds never die whatever the distance and the time."
The manager of the shipyard sees Splyne and comes to tell him that the Orcas are ready to launch. "We fitted the manifest scanners and hatch breaker limpets, like you asked. They're good to go."
"And that's what we need to do," Splyne says to Adalina. "So, you couldn't find the plate you wanted."
"No, I guess I'll look for a material trader. Border Reiver
's a sturdy ship; she'll get us to Diva Mines, no worries."
I'm sitting at a table near a window of Diva Diner
where I can see the entrance to the Blaster and Limpet
bar. I watch the motley collection of people who come and go. There are the easily identified hardened pirates and their hangers-on, but I also recognise the drug dealers, the arms dealers, the fences, and the opportunistic nobodies – all here in the service of anarchy.
I take a bite of my third panino as two people emerge from the bar. I nearly choke on the mouthful; one of them is clearly Vesto Cipher – he's joking with the doorman and looks relaxed in his home environment. The other person is a woman; I see her stance as she waits for the banter to finish and I notice she has blonde hair flowing onto her shoulders. As she turns towards me and the light falls on her face, I see the unmistakable features of Jenna Crumlin.
It falls into place – I thought
I recognised the woman in the videos that Vinny showed me and now I can put a name to the images. This is the killer of Jensen Foote and Bonbon Larousse.
She works for William Auer of the Ant Hill Mob, based in Maia. At last I understand what's been happening to me and my businesses; Auer wants revenge for what I did to him. It's puzzling, though, that Crumlin is here; she was one of the people trapped by the Frame Dilation Drive
installed inside a hijacked Cyclops, far away in the Hyades Sector. How did she escape, I wonder.
Cipher and Crumlin walk away from the bar at a leisurely pace. I leave the diner and follow them at a distance, always with an eye to keeping in the shadows and ever ready to dodge behind a pillar or into a doorway. I'm relying heavily on my hat-and-dark-glasses disguise if they do see me, but Cipher looks like he feels secure on his home base and doesn't look behind him.
I'm not familiar with the layout of Diva Mines so the only thing I know is that we're not heading back to the pad 3 hangar. I follow them through busy thoroughfares, down corridors and along passageways into a more remote area of the outpost. We're in a place where there are doors into service areas and there are access panels in the walls. Technicians and engineers only come here for routine maintenance or when there's a problem.
They turn abruptly round a corner and I sneak forwards quickly so I don't lose them. I turn the corner and bump into Jenna Crumlin while Cipher taps numbers into an access keypad securing a door. She doesn't recognise me at first, but Cipher reacts quickly; he has a gun in my face before I can blink.
"Who have we here?" Crumlin says, removing my cap and glasses. "Linton! Perfect! Thanks for making my job so much easier."
She takes the gun from Cipher and keeps me covered while he returns to the keypad. The door opens onto a dimly lit room where I expect to see valuable black market goods and contraband.
"In," Cipher says pushing me into the room, where I see box upon box of food cartridges and bottles of water – hardly enough to satisfy the avarice of a pirate. He shackles me to a pipe.
"It's been a long time, Crumlin," I say, "but I was hoping it would be longer."
"It's been too long, and mostly thanks to you. Your punishment is overdue."
"I'm curious, how did you escape the frame dilation?"
Crumlin humours me; she's in control and she can take her time with me.
"Funny story. It seems the Thargoids really care for their own; one of their ships turned up a few months after you left to check on the Cyclops we'd seized."
"How did it even get close in the frame dilation field?"
"Well, you know how the 'goids can manipulate hyperspace? They were able to drop into normal space right next to their compatriot. When it saw that our
Cyclops had no hearts left the new one fired on it until it exploded. Suddenly, space-time was normal again – and we guessed that's where your device was installed; our combined firepower soon despatched the visiting 'goid and we were free – free, that is, to start planning your downfall."
"Your scheme would never have worked," I say. "The galaxy would not have allowed it."
"Maybe," she says, "maybe…oh, by the way, I have a message for you from John Crabbe; that bullet destroyed his lungs; he lives in a respirator now."
She gives me a sharp karate jab to the solar plexus that doubles me up and I stay down to avoid another blow.
"Come on, stand up, I want to do that again – it felt good."
I don't comply and instead receive a blow to the head from the butt of Cipher's gun. I'm out cold.
"Time to go," Splyne says, "take us back to Diva and keep under the radar – being scanned could seriously damage your health."
"Understood – this payload shouldn't be seen," Adalina says. "Launching now."
There's a queue to get out of Robardin Rock; a Krait piloted by Commander Hagz is at the head, and they're followed by the three Orcas belonging to Linton Travel.
"Off to do their mischief," Adalina nods towards them.
"Yep, heading to Linton's backyard where most damage will be done to his rep. My client wants to see him suffer rather than kill him straight off; they'll take him out when he's at his lowest point."
"Nah, what I would do is kill him at his happiest – that would feel like a bigger loss in the moments before he dies," Adalina replies, wondering if she's overstepped – sometimes you don't even know there's a line until you've crossed it.
Outside the station, Adalina takes one last look at the wing of Orcas before turning towards Trakath and charging Border Reiver